Meet the Uber Mercedes

The Maybach ups the stakes in the ultra-luxury car market

Mercedes-Benz's $116,000 S600 sedan would seem adequate for even the most discerning driver. It features a powerful engine, ultrasmooth ride, and self-activating windshield wipers. Then there is the phone, the CD player, and the navigation system, not to mention the bar.

But if that's not enough to satisfy your driving needs, fear not. A handful of carmakers are reviving superluxury, super-high-priced brands. DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes unit is relaunching the legendary Maybach--an 83-year-old brand that has been gussied up with high-tech gadgets and customized styling. One customer wanted a Maybach, which starts at $300,000, to be paneled with wood from a favorite but dying tree in his garden. Rolls-Royce and Bentley are unleashing their own super-high-end models.

This is more image-enhancer than profit center for auto makers. Still, Mercedes says it can sell 1,000 of these one-of-a-kind cars a year with about 400 slated for the U.S. So far it has more than 200 orders, including one from King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Mercedes-Benz USA is meeting with its 350 dealers to determine which 80 to 90 will get Maybach franchises. Those that do are expected to spare no expense in giving buyers personal attention. Owners will be able to reach a sales agent round the clock by pressing a button on the car-phone keypad. Still, making the Maybach an object of American auto envy is no small task. For Americans, Rolls Royce and Bentley are "the epitome of wealth," says Wesley R. Brown, a consultant at Nextrend Inc. in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

At 18.8 feet, the car is about the same length as the mammoth Ford Excursion sport-utility vehicle. The company will unveil the Maybach at the Paris car show, the Mondial de l'Automobile, on Sept. 26, but it won't go on sale in the U.S. until the following spring. Although it's owned by Mercedes, the Maybach is not an adaptation. It has a 12-cylinder engine with twin turbochargers to deliver 550 horsepower, nearly 200 more than the most powerful Mercedes engine.

The vehicle's double-M emblem, for Maybach Manufaktur, evokes the 1,800 Maybach limousines built in the 1920s and '30s. The cars, favorites of stars like Marlene Dietrich and Enrico Caruso, were as reliable as they were luxurious: Some 150 are still in circulation.

Mercedes will soon have company. BMW will roll out a $250,000 Rolls sedan in January. Volkswagen, which acquired Bentley in 1998, is competing with a muscular Bentley GT Coupe. A slew of super sports cars are also in the works, including a $900,000 Bugatti monster being built by VW, the brand's new owner. Cadillac may weigh in with a V-12 super sports car for $150,000.

Is there demand? Auto makers insist they can sell 10,000 of these cars a year around the world. Buyers at these prices tend to coast above economic ups and downs. Ferrari, for instance, boasted a three-year waiting list in the U.S. at the recent downturn's trough. "These people think, `Do I buy a yacht, an apartment in Paris, or another car?"' says a Mercedes sales executive.

By Christine Tierney in Frankfurt, with David Welch and Kathleen Kerwin in Detroit

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